The first indication that John Edgar Wideman's fifteenth book, Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race, and Love, is not a simple sports book is its dedication: "In homage to W.E.B. DuBois and The Souls of Black Folk -- model, guide, beacon."
DuBois, one of the 20th century's most important intellectuals and civil rights leaders, championed activism against the "industrial slavery and civic death" facing black Americans and against their "permanent legislation into a position of inferiority."
To some extent, DuBois' book, a collection of various genres between two covers, served as a model for Wideman's.
"I loved the book [The Souls of Black Folk], obviously," said Wideman in a telephone interview from his Manhattan residence. "I learned a lot from it. It also provided a specific framework. [Hoop Roots] was a sincere offering to him. Combining [much as DuBois did] essays, poetry, fiction, statistical study and autobiography into one cohesive piece was a challenge for me: how to write about culture and how to write about oneself."
Which is why Hoop Roots is as much social commentary and personal memoir as it is a basketball book. Playground basketball is certainly an apt vessel to explore America's race problem, and Wideman uses it brilliantly. He also wields his characteristic memoir style (Fatheralong and Brothers and Keepers) to examine race issues -- and himself -- from the inside out.
Wideman takes us back to 7415 Finance Street in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, Pa. The same summer that Wideman learned to play basketball as a boy, he also conducted an intimate watch at this house over his dying grandmother, a stroke victim. He describes the smell of her illness as "the smell of bread baking, bread turned slightly sour the way old meat turns."
Playground anecdotes are expertly told, from no-look, alley-oop passes to standing on the court, hearing the teaching voices of the players who came before.
"Which old-timer," Wideman writes, "said it first -- You can switch a shot to a pass, boy. No way you switching pass to shot. Leave your feet better always be thinking shot first, boy. How can you hear the whole message in a fraction of the time required for speaking one word of it aloud."
Other court lessons stress higher principles: "Do it right if you're going to do it. Play the game with all you have or leave it alone is what those dark, dripping wet bodies working, playing under the hot sun say to the passersby."
Hoop Roots is challenging reading. The basketball sections contain nuances best understood by players and ex-players. Wideman embraces basketball as one of life's great teachers. But he also aims and fires at the establishment that makes basketball an escape route for young black men, a theme brilliantly explored in the 1994 documentary film, Hoop Dreams.
The long, contemplative memoir sections are heady, sometimes written as stream of consciousness, sometimes with a dusting of metaphysics. Wideman vacillates between something akin to free-verse poetry, street talk and a staccato, ra-a-tat-tat prose. The style is somewhat distracting, the meditations occasionally tedious.
The book at times seems a trip inside Wideman's private journal. We hear hints of him working through his own aging and the end of a 30-year marriage. We hear him trade erotic stories with his lover, which shift and change with the teller. We hike in Mayan ruins up the Great Pyramid at Chichn Itz.
We hear about his daughter, Jamila Wideman, who played in the NCAA Women's Final Four for Stanford University and then in the WBNA. And then placed in the center of the text is a short story, "Who Invented the Jump Shot (A Fable)."
Wideman thus floats a narrative experiment leaving the reader to judge its success in combining its disparate parts. "I write a book," said Wideman, "because I have a lot of questions, not answers. I leave the reader with the same questions."